After Mid-term Elections Congress Looks at Long-term Fix for Highway Trust Fund

President Obama said he and a GOP-controlled Congress should be able to craft legislation on infrastructure improvements and international trade that uses those transportation networks

With the mid-term elections mainly over, Congress could try in coming months to enact a long-term fix to the Highway Trust Fund, which House Speaker John Boehner has identified as an area where congressional Republicans will try to reach "common ground" with President Obama.

Boehner now has the scenario he expected weeks ago when he told ABC News that "a big highway bill" and "tax reform" are among things a Republican Congress and President Obama could achieve together. At that time Boehner said he expected the GOP to control the Senate in the Congress that takes office in January.

Congress will also need to pass an aviation reauthorization bill before September 30, 2015, or extend current programs, and could take up a rail programs bill that addresses some Amtrak infrastructure needs and perhaps sorts out some freight issues.

Republicans won most of the Senate races they targeted on November 4, defeating incumbent Democrats, taking some open seats and beating back challenges to some of their members. They netted at least seven pickups, with Louisiana moving to a December 6 runoff.

Although a new Congress can take months to settle in as members get their committee assignments and begin to shape legislation, lawmakers will need to deal with the Highway Trust Fund no later than May and perhaps sooner.

Ahead of the mid-terms, Congress put off action on many issues and enacted temporary measures on others, such as extending funding for government agencies only through December 11.

For the Highway Trust Fund, Congress passed a short-term extension in July that provides funding for road and transit programs only through next May.

Since then, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who chairs the Budget Committee and could lead the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in the next Congress, has said lawmakers could include transportation funding in any deal next March to extend the expiring federal debt limit. 

On November 5, President Obama said he and a GOP-controlled Congress should be able to craft legislation on infrastructure improvements and international trade that uses those transportation networks.

“We all agree on the need to create more jobs that pay well. Traditionally, both parties have been for creating jobs rebuilding our infrastructure – our roads, bridges, ports, waterways,” Obama said in a White House news conference.

“I think we can hone in on a way to pay for it through tax reform that closes loopholes and makes it more attractive for companies to create jobs here in the United States," the president said. "We can also work together to grow our exports and open new markets for our manufacturers to sell more American-made goods to the rest of the world.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who won re-election and is poised to set the Senate agenda as majority leader come January, also held out an olive branch by ruling out some types of policy confrontation that have at times rattled financial markets. Reuters reported that McConnell said: "We're not going to be shutting down the government or defaulting on the national debt." 

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece they jointly penned, Boehner and McConnell did not list a highway bill among their priorities for the new Congress but said they wanted to address “the insanely complex tax code that is driving American jobs overseas.” That seems to put them and Obama on a similar course, since some leaders in both parties say a tax code overhaul could also deliver new infrastructure funding for a number of years. 

Meanwhile, the temporary extensions of federal highway and transit programs weigh on state transportation planners this autumn as they draw up 2015 project lists for contractors to bid on. Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer notified his state's congressional delegation and General Assembly October 24 that he had delayed $400 million worth of projects, pulling them out of TDOT's fiscal 2015 plans due to uncertainty over federal funding flows.

To help Congress craft a sustainable revenue stream for federal highway and transit programs, the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has issued its 2014 list of funding options lawmakers could draw from. That resource shows how much revenue lawmakers could raise from 38 options that each draw from direct users of surface transportation networks.

In unveiling that options matrix, AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright said the AASHTO Board of Directors – made up of 52 transportation department chiefs from the states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico – "is strongly united in its desire for Congress to identify long-term and sustainable funding to shore up the struggling Highway Trust Fund."